Al-Qaeda militants, including suicide bombers, launched a massive pre-dawn assault on one of southeastern Yemen’s main towns on Saturday, killing at least 15 soldiers and police, security officials said.
They attacked army bases and public buildings in Seiyun, second city of Hadramawt province, with car bombs, rocket-launchers and heavy machineguns, the officials said.
The regional military headquarters, the special forces base and the main police station were all targeted in the attack, which began shortly after midnight (2100 GMT Friday), residents said.
The militants lost 12 dead, three of them suicide bombers, but were able to evacuate around 20 wounded when they finally withdrew late in the morning, a local government official said.
The assault in Hadramawt, a jihadist stronghold that has seen large-scale attacks on the army in the past, came as troops pressed a month-old ground offensive against Al-Qaeda in Abyan and Shabwa provinces to the west.
President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who had ordered security forces on high alert for fear of Al-Qaeda reprisals, fired Seiyun army commander General Mohammed Somali, over the attack, a defence ministry official told AFP in Sanaa.
Somali had left his post on Friday to travel to the capital and had relaxed security during his absence, the official said.
A loyalist of the president, General Ahmed Ali Hadi, was named to replace him.
Al-Qaeda has launched a spate of spectacular attacks on army headquarters around the country in recent months.
In December, it assaulted the defence ministry in the heart of the capital, killing 56 people.
An April attack on army headquarters in the main southern city of Aden left at least 20 people dead.
– Banks ransacked –
Three car bombs were detonated outside the main military compound in Seiyun but its garrison put up fierce resistance, a security official said.
Militants ransacked the main post office and two banks, residents said.
Seiyun is the main town in the Hadramawt valley in the province’s interior.
But Al-Qaeda has also launched spectacular attacks in the provincial capital Mukalla on the Arabian Sea coast.
In October, militants stormed army headquarters in the port city and held some of its garrison hostage for several days before finally being overrun in fighting that left at least 10 people dead.
In February 2012, a suicide bomber blew up a vehicle outside the presidential palace in Mukalla, killing 26 elite troops and overshadowing Hadi’s swearing in as the first new president in Sanaa since 1978.
Al-Qaeda exploited the 11-month-long 2011 uprising that led to the ouster of veteran strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh to seize large swathes of southern and eastern Yemen.
The army recaptured several major towns in 2012 but has struggled to reassert control in rural areas despite recruiting militia allies among the local tribes.
Troops launched a new offensive in the mountains of Abyan and Shabwa and Abyan on April 29 and have entered a string of smaller towns.
But analysts say the army’s gains may have been the result of a tactical retreat by Al-Qaeda in coordination with the tribes.
Washington regards the jihadists’ Yemen franchise — Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — as its most dangerous and has stepped up drone attacks against AQAP leaders in recent months.